Taylor departs from NDSU, moves to Iowa
FARGO — Gene Taylor officially left his post as the North Dakota State athletic director this week. The moving van came to his south Fargo home to take the family belongings to Iowa City, where Taylor will become the deputy director of athletics at the University of Iowa.
He got the Bison job on May 2, 2001 after 15 years as an assistant at the Naval Academy. Just over a year later, NDSU announced it was moving to Division I athletics, meaning Taylor had the task of leading the department through a transition.
It went better than anybody could have expected.
This week, Taylor sat down with Forum sportswriter Jeff Kolpack and WDAY sports director Dom Izzo for a question and answer session addressing his tenure at NDSU. The entire interview can be found on the Bison Media Blog at www.bisonmedia.areavoices.com.
Q: It’s been a month and a half since you announced you take took the job, what have the last six weeks been like?
Taylor: It was pretty calm and normal until about the last two weeks and that’s when reality set in. All of a sudden, trying to get things wrapped up.
Q: You could have stayed here and been comfortable until you retired, but in athletics, people often look for the next challenge. How big of a factor did that play?
Taylor: Quite a bit. Obviously, I’m not getting any younger and one of my goals has always been to be a BCS athletic director. As I stayed here and thought I had that chance, and as Gary (Barta) and I talked about it, it is time for that next chapter. We accomplished a lot at North Dakota State and it’s not like the work is done, but it was one of those, OK, what’s next?
Q: There were times when you probably second-guessed the move to Division I, go back to those early days, were there a lot of late nights where you wondering what in the world are we doing?
Taylor: Well, I was at my home computer typing my final recommendation to President Chapman and I got to that last line that said I recommend … and I had to stop and say, do we really want to do this? Look what you’re going to do to a storied Division II program if it doesn’t work out. I had to stop and think about that. Once you got into the transition, yeah, there were some tough times without a conference. I’ll never forget the Big Sky moment when we thought we were going to get in the Big Sky and we didn’t. Yeah, there were tough times where you had to hold onto your seat and say this is going to be a rough ride.
Q: There were a lot of naysayers out there. Who was for it?
Taylor: What we relied on was that strategic plan and the Carr Report, that gave us a lot of good information. We had that leadership team of 25 people, there were probably three or four strong advocates on that committee, some in the middle and some really opposed. As they began to study it, those 25 people, they began to say we see some possibilities. This isn’t that far of a stretch. When that committee began to turn before we made the final decision, that helped.
Q: Do you think if you would not have recommended the move that President Chapman would have overruled you?
Taylor: Oh boy, that’s a great question. I think the possibility would have been strong. He was really wanting to move, he felt very strong about it. But again, once we looked at the information and data, this was the right thing to do. There was not much of a I’m-not-going-to-do-it conversation.
Q: You have pointed to the Montana football win as a landmark. Then the Wisconsin basketball win. How much were those resonating on a regional and national level?
Taylor: I always point to that Montana win. That was where all those naysayers if they didn’t go over the fence at least they got on the fence that maybe we can do this. Then we had some basketball success and, yeah, that Montana win and the Wisconsin win really stemmed the tide in terms of hey this is going to happen.
Q: The 27-21 win over Minnesota in 2007 was a big a piece of the puzzle, which brought so many factions together. Do you think that got the rest of those people off that fence?
Taylor: You’re right, what you had is those longtime Bison supporters, and a whole bunch of new fans who said this is pretty cool. What, 20,000 to 30,000 at the game and walking down the streets of Minneapolis. To me, that said we’re here, we’ve arrived now and from there it took off. Craig (Bohl) … the success he had catapulted a lot of the other programs along the way, too.
Q: You hired Craig Bohl over Gus Bradley. Why?
Taylor: I had a friend call me the other day and say he’s going to make a T-shirt that says ‘I’m the one who passed over Gus Bradley.’ It was probably the most difficult decision that I’ve had early in my career and worked out for both. Obviously both are very successful coaches and both continue to be.
Q: For the most part, there were a lot of big football wins in your department. Did you back on Aug. 30, 2002 make a conscious decision to get football D-I ready right away?
Taylor: Absolutely, we knew in our plan, football has to be successful. That was our cash cow. That was our key to the future in terms of being able to generate the revenue to help the other programs be successful so that’s why we bumped scholarships quickly, went full staff quickly, paid pretty well at that time and from that success we were able to do things for other sports. We took football, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball and said let’s fully fund them, let’s get them going, but particularly football has to be successful.
Q: Over this stretch, was there a moment that blew you away that you didn’t expect would happen?
Taylor: Early on, it had to be the Wisconsin win in basketball, you had a bunch of freshmen. We got beat two nights before at Utah Valley, a bad loss, and thought this is not going to be pretty. And sure enough, they go out and win. Also to be in that first national championship (football) game and be on the sidelines when clock went to zero, that to me was something I’ll never forget.
Q: What regrets do you have? A lot of people would say a football game with UND never happening.
Taylor: I get that and I understand that. Obviously that game is important to a lot of people but on the flipside there’s a lot of people who don’t want it. That’s not why we haven’t played. People say oh, Gene is mad, that’s not the case. Actually Brian (Faison) and I have been talking. What will happen in the future? I don’t know, but the game will happen. Do I regret it not happening on my watch? Not necessarily because we played them in all the other sports but it just wasn’t working out for lot of reasons. My biggest regret is at that time we did not get the Bison Sports Arena project started earlier.
Q: Now you’re going to be on the opposite of the conversation of the Big Ten not scheduling FCS teams, do you believe your position will change?
Taylor: I don’t know how much influence I’ll have but in my conversations with Gary, he feels strongly there are teams in every conference that still need to have an FCS win as long as it will count toward bowl eligibility. The conversations I’ve had, I want to be an advocate for it. I’ve told my FCS colleagues I’m going to do everything I can to keep that going because it’s important for teams. Many of these conferences, they’re not always going to be able to play for a national championship.
Q: Is FBS in the future in Fargo?
Taylor: I wouldn’t completely discount it and the reason why is because as BCS still begins to separate … and they’re going to … the difference between BCS and FBS with some of these new rules, cost of attendance, financially, those FBS programs will have a hard time staying there. If they continue to separate, then I can see us being at the next level with the MACs (Mid-American Conference) and Sun Belts. I don’t know when that will be, it may not be for another 10 years, but keep an eye on that separation.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge for the next athletic director?
Taylor: I think managing the expectations. You start winning championships and that’s great, we’ve always had that at NDSU, but finding the funds to do that – that’s going to be a challenge, funding the programs. I’m hoping the new building will help that.